Amazing! Incredible! Unbelievable! Eyeglasses that let you see through clothes. The secrets to super-human strength. Scary seven-foot tall ghosts that do your bidding. All of this could be yours for a dollar or two. At least, that’s what vintage comic-book ads would have you believe. Six years ago, artist and historian Kirk Demarais, who runs the brilliant Gen X nostalgia site, Secret Fun Spot, became determined to uncover the truth behind these comic-book ads published between the 1950s and late ’80s. Last fall, he published “Mail-Order Mysteries,” a book that reveals what you really got when you ordered any one of 150 supposed marvels.
“Harold von Braunhut, who pushed X-Ray Spex and Sea-Monkeys, was the guru of comic-book mail order.”
Demarais, who is 39, became fascinated with mail-order comic novelities as a kid in small-town Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where he’s lived most of his life. The impact these ads had on his imagination is spelled out in his 2004 short film, “Flip,” about a boy who dreams of the wonderful life such $1 products could bring him. The film led to his dream job: redesigning the S.S. Adams novelty company’s catalog and writing a 2006 book on the gag-maker’s 100-year history called “Life of the Party.”
Recently, Demarais has also made a name for himself with his color-pencil drawings depicting TV and movies families, like The Cosbys and The McFlys, as if they’d gone to Sears and had a portrait done, earning him famous patrons like Kristen Wiig and Jonah Hill. This May, Demarais will have his first two-man art show at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles.
Collectors Weekly: How did you first come across comic-book ads?
Kirk Demarais: The first time I ever saw comics for sale was in 1979, when the place we called “the Icee shop” got a comic rack. I was in the first grade, and I decided to spend my candy money on a “Micronauts” comic book instead. But it was definitely not made for first-graders to read. I was uninterested in the story itself, but the ads were so mysterious and amazing: Gorilla masks were across the page from a hovercraft. They offered pranks like S.S. Adams’ Snake Nut Can and spooky stuff like monster hands and a skull key chain. I was completely blown away.
Of course, X-Ray Spex caught my attention because I loved the idea you could see through things like that. That’s when I approached my dad, asking for that stuff, and he informed me that most of it was a rip-off. I wasn’t allowed to get any of it until I grew up and eBay came along, with the rare exception of the items I would come across in souvenir and toy shops. Anytime I saw a comic-book prank like the Joy Buzzer while I was on vacation, I would definitely snatch it up.
Collectors Weekly: Isn’t it funny how when your parents tell you something is a rip-off, it just makes you want it more?
Demarais: Oh yeah. Suddenly, it was the forbidden fruit. I trusted my parents in general, but something about that, I thought, “How did they know?” They didn’t order it. It’s also the first time I ever encountered dishonest salesmanship. I thought, “With all the other commercials I see on television, you get what they show you.” Part of me had a hard time fathoming that people would just out-and-out rip you off, especially kids. That’s the coming-of-age lesson behind it.
Collectors Weekly: The hilarious part is that it only cost you a few dollars to begin with. If you bought a real X-ray, it would cost a lot of money.
Demarais: Right. Yes, but there’s always that hope that somehow they’ve developed this technology for dirt cheap. Somehow it’s the best of all worlds. They have developed the ability, and it’s practically free. But as a first-grader, I wasn’t thinking in those terms.
Collectors Weekly: Why were these things so appealing?
Demarais: They weren’t just toys. Things like X-Ray Spex and the Charles Atlas Fitness Program could improve my life. If I had ordered something from a comic book, I wouldn’t just play with it. No, it could actually bring admiration from others. Even in first grade, I faced bullies, and so I thought these things could help me stand up for myself. I definitely wanted to know karate, and that was the first time I ever desired something that wasn’t a toy.
There was something about these ads: They seemed like a tantalizing gateway to sophisticated and mysterious adult worlds. Sadly, they still appealed to the most basic desires, glory and money and sex. They’re not selling the kind of things that bring the true fulfillment that adults should be pursuing.
Collectors Weekly: What was your first experience with an actual comic-book mail-order item?
Demarais: I was misled, because my early encounters with comic-book novelties were resoundingly positive. When I was a teen, a novelty shop opened up in downtown Siloam Springs for just a couple of weeks, and I got the Snake Nut Can there. The can is solidly constructed, made out of metal. If you shake it, it rattles, so it sounds like it has something in it. The snake, a spring covered in a fabric sheath, pops out really well. I had loads of fun with it.
Then, I was given a Spooky Bank, which is shaped like a coffin. You wind the bank up, and a skeleton pops up and grabs your coin. Again, that was a blast. I loved the artwork on it. It was funny, mysterious, and it did what the ad said. Another, the Switchblade Comb, I found while on vacation. It looks like a switchblade, but instead of a blade, it has a comb on it. But that thing is so fun and satisfying when you pop it out.
Because I was three for three, it was incredibly deceptive. Probably the main reason those particular novelties made it into stores is that they’re decent products. Whereas, with a lot of the stuff sold through comic-book mail order, no one in their right mind who can pick it up and inspect it is going to buy it.
Collectors Weekly: X-Ray Spex were your first real disappointment?
Demarais: Yeah, you don’t actually see through clothes or skin. Thankfully, by that time, I was an adult, and I was expecting that. X-Ray Spex were literally the first thing I ordered online. It was ’98, and I didn’t even know about eBay; I had found a site that sold pranks and magic tricks.
The lens is made up of two pieces of thin cardboard, more like cardstock, with a hole in the center, and in between those cardboard pieces is an actual feather. It’s hard to explain how it works. I have the book here. Let me read. I said, “In the original Spex, the X-ray illusion occurs as the viewer looks through genuine feathers which are embedded between the cardboard. … The feathers’ veins diffract light, creating the appearance of two offset images. A darker area forms where the images overlap which can be interpreted as bone in your hand or the curves of a lady.”
Collectors Weekly: Can you imagine how disappointed you would have been?
Demarais: I never felt the true sting of shady mail order when I was a child. It would’ve been pretty upsetting if I had spent my allowance on that stuff. I’ve talked to a lot of people who did order this stuff as children. And at lot of times, they say that, yes, there was a sting of disappointment at first, but once they got over that, they found a way to enjoy the products.
It makes sense. Kids can use their imaginations to make anything fun, even plain cardboard boxes. Even though these X-Ray Spex don’t work, they look cool. Even though these toy soldiers are smaller than you thought and they’re flat, they’re still toy soldiers. You can still set them up and use your imagination.
Collectors Weekly: But as an adult, you were able to go crazy and buy the things you were denied as a kid?
Demarais: After I bought the X-Ray Spex online, I started accumulating a little bit at a time. Then when the notion of the book came about six years ago, that’s when I kicked it into high gear. Even though the book wasn’t a sure thing, I thought, “I’m going to go ahead and get serious about tracking this stuff down.”
A designer I admire once told me that it’s a dangerous thing when you can justify your obsessions. I had done just that. It was no longer just for fun. It told myself, “Well, this is a dream of mine and an art project.” Because I had a goal in mind, I was able to spend more freely.
Probably when mankind was less developed, this instinct was more practical. We collectors probably had a strong, important role in gathering food or collecting old bones and rocks for tools. Now, it’s a misspent obsession—just these weird flights of fancy. It’s very odd.
Collectors Weekly: So you ended up spending a lot more on these items than they were originally sold for?
Demarais: If you added it up over from age 14 to now, it may be a couple thousand. But most of it is relatively cheap. Most of the rare stuff in the book, that belongs to a fellow up in New Jersey named Eddie Guevarra. I flew up there and photographed his collection. He’s equally obsessed, and he was able to purchase this stuff when he was a kid, and he had the wherewithal to keep most of it. In the book, I talk about the Seven Giant Dinosaurs, which are just balloons. Still, Eddie kept those balloons. During all my eBay-ing all this time, that’s the only time I’ve ever seen those.
A couple months before the book was done, I saw the U-Control Ghost on eBay. I’d never seen it in my entire life. I had a couple of freelance jobs lined up, so I was willing to spend a bit more than usual. To add to the drama, I was teaching an evening computer course at John Brown University when the auction was ending. As I was lecturing, I could see my eBay auction on my screen. And I was the only bidder up until 12 minutes before the auction was to end. Then, I see it start going up. So for a while, I’m trying to act like I’m not interested in this. I’m trying to struggle through the lecture, and finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. I said, “Okay, class, let’s take a break.” Then I sat down for those last 10 minutes and bid it up to $365. But the other bidder swooped in at the last minute and beat me.
I was very disappointed. I emailed the seller and said, “I would pay if you would send me some high-res photos of this item that I just lost because I’m working on a book.” Well, he didn’t respond, but he forwarded my request to the winner of the item, which was Eddie. And so Eddie writes me, “Hello. I understand you’re interested in some photos. Yes, I can do that for you.” And I wrote back, I’m like, “Eddie, it’s me. Don’t you recognize the email?”
It was amazing because I already had tickets to go up to New Jersey and photograph his collection at that point. Even though I got outbid, I was able to get the U-Control Ghost in the book. Eddie and I may be literally the only two people in the world who care that much about it. It’s ironic because if either one of us didn’t exist, the other could’ve gotten it for the opening bid of $10.
Collector Weekly: Another ad that everyone remembers is the Charles Atlas comic strip.
Demarais: That one is a fitness course, one of many fitness courses offered through comic books. The Charles Atlas plan is unique because it doesn’t use dumbbell training. It all has to do with exercises you can do without additional equipment, like stretches, pushups, and sit-ups, because Mr. Charles Atlas thought that weightlifting was not the way to go. It is, by far, the most popular mail-order fitness course, because it was one of the first, originating in the 1930s. But also because of that comic strip, which paints the whole fantasy of the formerly skinny guy facing a bully; it makes a lasting impression.
As far as its effectiveness, yes, there are many, many satisfied customers who claim that the Charles Atlas course did indeed work. But that’s the thing. Almost any fitness course, if you have the wherewithal and the discipline to do it, will work. There were 12 individual lessons, as well as bonus lessons on eating right and exercising. That was all it was.
Collectors Weekly: When I was little, I was totally creeped out by the Sea-Monkeys ads.
Demarais: That’s hilarious. Yeah, the drawing on the ad makes it look like Sea-Monkeys are living beings with human faces that can look at you and weird crowns on their heads. And they’re naked—that’s what got me. They’re supposed to be a family, and the whole family is naked together. That always weirded me out, too.
Sea-Monkeys are actually brine shrimp. They’re one of first comic-book mail-order items I bought. I think I got them at Toys R’ Us in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I was a kid. They start out disappointing. After waiting 24 hours for the water to become purified, you put the eggs in and they do hatch, but the Sea-Monkeys are almost microscopic at first. You can only see them with a magnifying glass, and they look like little particles in the water. But then if you look real close, they have this little tail flickering around.
At first, there is this initial disappointment, but if you keep your Sea-Monkeys alive, they do grow, and they get to where you can see them quite easily. For me, the real turning point in my Sea-Monkey experience was when they each develop this little eye, a dark spot on each of their heads. They do tricks, too. Sometimes, they’ll respond to your finger or light. So yes, I would play with them and I did become attached to the Sea-Monkeys. In the end, I think they’re pretty cool, and they’re not scary. But they don’t have human faces, they don’t look like naked people, and they’re not grouped in nuclear families. The ad definitely took massive liberties.
Sea-Monkeys were marketed by the late Harold von Braunhut, who also pushed X-Ray Spex. He was the guru of all comic-book mail order. Von Braunhut developed the X-Ray Spex in 1964, and he’s the mastermind behind Sea-Monkeys. I’ve read some interviews with him where he talked about how hard he tried to sell his idea of Sea-Monkeys to toy shops, and no one wanted it. Then, it dawned on him that with mail order, you completely do away with the middleman. He launched his business in 1960 and became a multimillionaire because, as my book says, “The relatively affordable ad space proved to be a tremendous success, and instant life produced instant wealth. In their prime, the ad appeared in 303 million pages annually.”
Collectors Weekly: Who drew these ads?
Demarais: The X-Ray Spex in particular were drawn by a professional daredevil named Henri LaMothe, who is the in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for making the world’s “Highest Shallow Dive,” from 28 feet into 12 inches of water. Some of the military ones, like the ad for Revolutionary Soldiers, were drawn by a famous comic-book artist named Russ Heath. I think he made $50 to do this one ad, and yet it turned out to be his most famous piece of work because the same ads were reprinted for decades.
But aside from those exceptions, I have no idea who drew this stuff. I know that some of the art was supplied by the people who made the items. Some of the art was probably drawn by in-house layout artists at Johnson Smith & Co. and novelty companies like that. But I’ve never been able to track it down.
It’s very frustrating for me as a historian. When I was working with S.S. Adams on the book, I realized no one bothered archiving all that information, like who did what. Of course, they’re a business: All they’re worried about is getting the art, putting the products together, sending them out, and making the money. Any information that happens to remain, it’s almost accidental. S.S. Adams knew the name of one of their artists, and the rest were no-name guys who would do the drawing and be gone.
Collectors Weekly: Now that you’re old enough to be cynical, did some of the products surprise you?
Demarais: The Air Car Hovercraft will hover on water, which still blows me away. One of my favorite items is the Secret Agent Spy Camera, because actually it takes photos, but you still have to get the film developed. In the book, I mentioned that when you’re a kid, this seems to be a big challenge and extra expense and you have to involve your mom or dad. It’s just a miniature camera. They take only black-and-white, and they do have a very grainy, spooky look to the photos. You can now find groups on Flickr of artistic photos taken with these spy cameras.
The Spy “Pen” Radio is cool because it doesn’t take any batteries, for one. It looks like a pen with wires hanging out of it, but it has a working crystal radio inside it. You’re supposed to hook it up to something metal, like phone cord or a radiator, both of which are hard to find now. Then it has a little earpiece, and you tune the radio by pulling or pushing a little antenna sticking out of the bottom. It’s not fooling anyone because it’s not like you can put it in your pocket and no one could tell that it’s a radio. In that sense, it’s a failure. But I can only imagine being a kid in the late ’60s or ’70s and actually having this very portable radio that works and requires no batteries.
Collectors Weekly: What about Count Dante’s World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets?
Demarais: The fighting techniques are indeed deadly, but they’re obvious. Like, it’s no secret that its deadly to gouge someone’s eyes out, or to break their spine. And, yes, you are a murderer if you use anything out of this book. That’s obviously a problem. There are several self-defense books in “Mail-Order Mysteries,” and that one is by far the most sensational. If I would’ve had this as a kid, I would’ve been fascinated because it’s not playing around. It’s not promoting a healthy or smart way of life. It’s telling you how to kill people. I think I would have appreciated that, like, “Wow, this is really how to do it.”
When you’re a kid, no one else is showing you detailed methods, with photographs, of how to mortally wound someone, so it’s definitely a cut above the typical self-defense program. The others, they have this honorable philosophy that insists it’s only for defense, and you should never use it on someone unless you absolutely must. Whereas Count Dante is more brutal. It’s that adult factor. It’s like, “For the first time, I’m going to tell you how it is, kid. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Here’s the deadly stuff right here.”
Collectors Weekly: What were the biggest disappointments, aside from the X-Ray Spex?
Demarais: The Ventrilo Voice Thrower is, I would say, a terrible disappointment mainly because the ad suggests that you’re going to make it sound as though you’re in a giant vase or a suitcase, and you’re completely throwing your voice. In truth, even if you use that thing correctly, you’re making a sound, and you’re not speaking audible words. Not to mention the fact that it’s this tiny, little metal thing you’re supposed to put in your mouth. It’s very dangerous. If you swallow it, it could kill you.
The other is that U-Control Ghost. The ad says, “U-Control 7-foot life-size ghost. It obeys commands indoors and outdoors, acts life-like, soars 30 to 40 feet. You control in secret, conceal in your pocket, ready to operate, floats, dances, spooky effects, 7-foot head and body, white shroud, secret control.” Well, it’s a balloon and a trash bag, basically, and some string. That would be the ultimate disappointment because that ad paints such an elaborate image in your mind, and even the picture shows a boy fleeing from this huge specter. I’m envisioning this remote control thing that’s massive and scary, and then you find out it’s just a balloon. Well, what’s horrible is one of the faces that was printed on the balloon is none other than Casper the Friendly Ghost. It’s supposed to be this terrifying thing, and it’s literally the friendliest ghost there is.
Collectors Weekly: A lot of it sounds like stuff you could’ve made yourself.
Demarais: Some of them you could make. In truth, there aren’t a ton of them that you could actually make from scratch, but they’re pretty cheap.
Collectors Weekly: Since these things were so disposable, does it make them harder to find?
Demarais: Yeah, the Frontier Cabin is the one that still eludes me. In the ad, it has the little boy in the Davey Crockett getup and it looks like he’s sitting in front of a wooden playhouse. But as I described on my blog, it’s actually a vinyl sheet with a cabin-like exterior printed on it. The idea is you take it and put it over a card table like a tablecloth. I have never even seen a picture. You can see why: It’s a piece of plastic. I could see it getting ruined very easily and being thrown away. That one is still out there, a mystery waiting to be solved.
Collectors Weekly: So your short film, “Flip” was inspired by the U-Control Ghost?
Demarais: In “Flip,” we called it the U-Control Monster, and that’s a combination. Comic book ads also sold a Monster Ghost, which was the same thing. They also sold things called Monster-Size Monsters, but those are posters.
“No one in their right mind who can pick it up and inspect it is going to buy it.”
The film came about in 2002, when some coworkers and I realized that we all had a dream to try our hand at filmmaking. I had just created a “Flip” web cartoon for my web site, because I had learned Flash animation. So we went for it: We decided to use the cartoon as the basis for a movie, and my friend Todd’s son happened to look like the main character.
Todd also happened to have a rental house that he was renovating. In my house, I have a bunch of vintage furniture, and so does Todd. We dug into our collections and redecorated his house all Mid-Century Modern on the inside. In some scenes, he even created fake wood-paneled walls, and we would borrow ’60s carpeting. I also have a friend who owned a stretch of buildings downtown that had a bunch of old retail equipment inside. So we were able to cobble together a dime store, too. That was the fun part, building the sets and buying stuff for the movie.
What’s cool is that if we hadn’t had done that, “Mail-Order Mysteries” wouldn’t exist. “Flip” created a chain reaction. “Flip” got me my job with S.S. Adams. I had sent the owner a copy of the movie because I put some Adams novelties in one of the scenes. He noticed that I had designed the DVD cover. He said, “Hey, you want to do some sort of retro modern design for us?” and that was that.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me more about the book you wrote for the S.S. Adams company?
Demarais: It’s a visual history of S.S. Adams. My wife and I traveled up to New Jersey. and we got to spend a week at the Adams factory and dug through all their archives. I photographed and scanned everything I could find, and that’s what that book is. S.S. Adams funded it and they distributed it themselves. It was only available in magic shops and places like that.
Collectors Weekly: In the blurb, designer Chip Kidd called your S.S. Adams book, “a heartbreaking secret history of 20th century America.” How so?
Demarais: Mostly, that’s a comment on the quality of the design and the craftsmanship. The company was 100 years old at that point, and that’s why we did the book. The turn-of-the-century products and catalogs were all beautifully hand-illustrated. Real artistry and craftsmanship went into both the printed materials as well as the items themselves. The Joy Buzzer is solid metal, same with the Snake Nut Can, et cetera. Then you see it degrade.
Back then, adults were buying the pranks. They weren’t sophisticated, but they were made for adults. By the mid-century, the adults were over it, but kids discovered it. It’s the same with movie monsters. When “Frankenstein” came out, originally it was scary for the general public, but by the ’60s, he was showing up on afternoon television and then the kids got it. It’s the same with pranks: Kids went crazy over that stuff in the mid-century. As you look at the packaging and all of the promotional material, everything got really chintzy, as the products were starting to be made overseas. Then by the ’80s, they’re using awful gradients, and it’s really ugly stuff. That’s why it’s heartbreaking: It’s the death of craftsmanship.
Collectors Weekly: Well, do you know anything about the other companies that made the mail-order products in comics?
Demarais: One misconception is that the people selling them in the comic books are the ones that made them. What you see in the comic books, those are just the distributors, the most popular being Johnson Smith & Co. There’s also Honor House and American Circle. Most of the items were made overseas, in places like China and Hong Kong. So as far as the actual manufacturers, they’re foreign manufacturers, and I know very little about them.
Collectors Weekly: I wonder if kids today would still be tantalized by these ads, as they have so much stimulation in their lives, thanks to computers.
Demarais: My son already prefers video games to television. I’ll say, “Why don’t we watch this show?” and he’ll say, “Why would we watch a show when we could play the show?” But then again, if you go to a standard toy aisle, there are still some very simplistic, classic toys that haven’t gone away. My son can appreciate it when we’ll pull out plastic toy soldiers, and he will play with them as long as he can.
Collectors Weekly: I think there’s a special thing that happens when you grow up in a small town where you have nothing to do.
Demarais: That’s how it was with me and those comic-book ads. There weren’t as many other distractions to pull me away from that obsession. Aside from television, when I found something that caught my interest, it could fill my world indefinitely, and I could take all this time to ponder it and pore over it.
“They weren’t just toys. These things could improve my life, and bring admiration from others.”
We never had a lake house, but some of my friends did. I love how you get out there, and you’re cut off from everything. If you’re digging around and you find a board game stashed under a bed, you say, “Let’s play this!” And you have the greatest time of your life playing Parcheesi or some dumb, old game that would never be fun otherwise. But because the stimulation is so limited, it’s elevated.
The other place that I discovered comics was going to the barbershop with my dad. They had this stack of “Archie” comics that had been there for at least 10 years, and they were completely ratty. They were missing covers and pages. That’s the perfect example, you’re a little kid in a barbershop where there’s nothing to look at, no TV on, and your dad’s just sitting there, staring at the wall. Then, “Whoa! What are these?” The shop had a soda cooler right there, the kind where you have to lift the top of it and reach down in. I’d have a bottled pop and read an “Archie,” and it was bliss.
Since then, I’ve bought a big stack of damaged “Archie” comics just to have them. There’s something so magical about how worn they are and the smell of them. It takes me back to that time of discovering them when there wasn’t a whole lot else going on.
Watch this preview to see Kirk Demarais demonstrate several mail-order mysteries in action:
Watch “Flip” here: